Octavia Hill history

Octavia Hill history

Octavia Housing is an organisation with a strong sense of purpose and a great deal of history. Our aims and ethos are based on the principles of our Founder, Octavia Hill (1838-1912) who began her work with the poor of London in the 1860’s. She was a pioneer of social housing, the founder of the National Trust and the first clean air campaigner for London.

Writing in the late 19th Century she stated that her purpose was to “make lives noble, homes happy and family life good”. This is not a phrase we would easily use today but one which does fundamentally underpin our work. Today, we continue to work with low income families and we follow many of the principles held by Octavia herself.  She recognised that housing regeneration was as much about people as buildings.

Learn more about Octavia Hill in our short video of her life, researched, directed and produced by a group of young people with the support of the Octavia Foundation.

Hidden Herstories: Octavia Hill from Octavia Foundation on Vimeo.


Octavia Hill's ideas
Collecting rents on time

Octavia was strict about collecting rent in full by each tenant every week for three reasons - firstly it gave tenants a regular time when they knew they had a responsibility to pay, secondly it ensured that investors could be paid a return and lastly,  it was an opportunity for weekly contact with tenants so they could be helped with any issues.

"If the rent is not ready, notice to quit must be served. The money is then almost always paid, when the notice is, of course, withdrawn. Besides this inexorable demand for rent (never to be relaxed without entailing cumu­lative evil on the defaulter, and setting a bad example, too readily followed by others)”  Homes for the London Poor 1869

Gold star service

An approach that has been around for over 100 years - Hill was realistic in that she knew she could not help everyone – only those willing to help themselves. She believed in giving responsibility to tenants - her system invovled setting a side a budget for the repair and improvement of each dwelling. If the budget was not spent at the end of the year, the tenants were able to spend the money on improvements.

Valuing mixed communities

Hill realised that in creating a “happy household” it was necessary to take care with how individual properties were let. She recognised the damage that could be done to communities by careless lettings policies. Writing in 1871 She said:

“ ... Amongst the many benefits which the possession of the houses enables us to confer on the people, perhaps one of the most important is our power of saving them from neighbours who would render their lives miserable. It is a most merciful thing to protect the poor from the pain of living in the next room to drunken, disorderly people. “I am dying,” said an old woman to me the other day: “I wish you would put me where I can’t hear S? beating his wife. Her screams are awful. And B? , too, he do come in so drunk. Let me go over the way to No. 30.” Our success depends on duly arranging the inmates (sic): not too many children in any one house, so as to overcrowd it; not too few, so as to overcrowd another; not two bad people side by side, or they drink to­gether; not a terribly bad person beside a very respectable one?”  Octavia Hill 1871

Open spaces

Octavia knew that open spaces played an important role in improving lives so she advocated for a “green belt” and was instrumental in getting Parliament Hill Fields bought for the benefit of Londoners, raising part of the money from the local authority and the rest – some £54,000 from private investors. It was Octavia’s campaign that ultimately led to the start of the National Trust in 1895.

Housing was not enough

Housing was fundamental but Octavia Hill recognised that improving the properties alone was simply not going to have the desired effect of changing behaviour. Employment, organising activities for young people including establishing the Southwark Cadet Company in order to introduce the boys of the slums of that area to the virtues of what she described as order, cleanliness, teamwork and self-reliance also played a huge role.

The present conception of the Army Cadet Force as a voluntary youth organisation, helped and inspired by the Army, really stems from that time and has continued throughout ACF’s history.

All of these themes resonate with best practice in regeneration projects that are now underway. The familiar stories of properties being upgraded or replaced without community input and deteriorating quickly thereafter are examples of a potential problem which Octavia Hill recognised long ago.

Clean air

After a visit abroad Octavia recognised the problems caused by the smoke in London. She understood that some 70 per cent of all energy was wasted and that it was creating health risks. In South Kensington, Octavia organised a clean air meeting at the site of the 1851 Exhibition attended by representatives from all over the country demonstrating the value of smokeless fuel and smokeless grates and campaigned to make these available to all. “The saving ought to be enormous” she said, “some scientific men say that as much as three million out of five million tons used annually flies away in smoke and so does harm and not good.”

Her actions in this area were less successful and writing in the 1940’s her biographer says “We still await someone with Octavia’s force to carry out the reforms she so widely foresaw and so greatly desired.”

Regeneration and people

Octavia’s real skill was in what we would today call “regeneration”. Properties were initially acquired in an awful state. Letters published by Octavia Hill describe the state of some of the dwellings and the conditions that existed at the time.

Hill’s method was initially to bring the properties to a decent standard and to improve them subsequently as the tenants demonstrated that they were able to look after the homes. She was respectful of the rights of tenants and would enter properties only with their permission. Her approach was basically one of “modelling” the right sort of behaviour that she wanted to encourage. She ensured that communal areas were clean and that corridors were scrubbed and rubbish removed, that all rents were paid on time and regularly, even if it meant several visits in a week. She also helped to provide work where necessary when tenants were out of employment, to ensure that they were all able to pay for the rent.

Valuing individuals

Writing in 1869, Octavia Hill said:

“Any persons accustomed to visit among the poor in a large district would, I believe, when confining themselves to a much smaller one, be led, if not to very unexpected conclusions, at least to very curious problems. In dealing with a large number of cases the urgency is so great one passes over the most difficult questions to work where sight is clear; and one is apt to forget Sissy Jupe’s quick sympathetic perception that per­centage signifies literally nothing to the friends of the special sufferer, who surely is not worth less than a sparrow. The individual case, if we cared enough for it, would often give us the key to many.“

Finally, her whole attitude and antipathy towards alms creating a benefit dependency. This is a much more challenging area of her work for those of us brought up on the idea of the state providing for those least able to care for themselves. Octavia Hill concluded that there were real problems that ill considered state aid on alms would have on eroding an individual’s sense of responsibility for his or her own wellbeing.

These are just some examples. Elsewhere in her writings are references to anti-social behaviour, the problems of overcrowding, the need to keep the role of the state to that of enabler (perhaps, a forerunner of arms length management ideas) rather than provider and the need for savings clubs (financial services for those on low incomes). There are even references to who should bear the costs of clearing away the slums before re-building took place – which closely resembles market renewal issues in the North of England.

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